By Jacob Klinger
For the U.S., the task of qualifying for the World Cup is often talked about as "the road to Brazil 2014" or "the path to the World Cup."
These may seem like casual phrases, but they are explicit. There is a beginning and an end. And when Jurgen Klinsmann's team arrives at the latter point, it is expected to do so having booked a seventh consecutive World Cup berth for the United States of America.
Kickoff against Antigua and Barbuda Friday marks the beginning of that journey. And while the fixtures that follow Friday's match promise to be much louder, bumpier, battery-dented and urine-soaked than the 90 minutes the U.S. will share with the Benna Boys, make no mistake, it all starts Friday.
Yet the 11-14 men firmly stamped with underdog tags are relatively anonymous. Who is Antigua and Barbuda?
The team's youngest and most experienced goalkeeper are the same person, Molvin James. He, like 16 of the 25 players on Antigua and Barbuda's travel roster, plays his club ball for USL Pro side Antigua Barracuda FC in the third tier of the American soccer pyramid.
James has yet to keep a clean sheet this season, but he will benefit from some veteran leadership in the back line shielding him.
George Dublin, 34, marshals a team and a defensive unit set to absorb massive amounts of pressure Friday night. His 15-year career has seen him earn 42 caps for his country while bouncing around Carribean clubs.
When examining Antigua and Barbuda's roster, though, it is Marvin McCoy of Wycombe Wanderers raising eyebrows. The London-born right back made 24 starts for The Chairboys in League One this season, the second-most of any player in the squad plying their trade across the Atlantic.
As in most matches, this is where the game will be won and lost. With the visitors looking to stay compact, the game seems to come down to how much space Antigua and Barbuda can over and for how long they can do so.
Here, Reading midfielder Mikele Leigertwood is the star. If he can temper the runs of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones and free up some time, space and possession for his side, then Antigua and Barbuda has a chance. Distribution duties will also fall heavily on Leigertwood. Look for him to try and pick out fellow midfielder and one-time track star Quinton Griffith on the left as the Benna Boys' best chance of getting on the board is undoubtedly through the counter.
Antigua and Barbuda may play with two strikers, or just one. If the U.S. does its job right, it will be hard to tell with all one or two of them forced into their own half to defend. Still, what forward play the Antiguans can manage will revolve around Pete Byers. Quick and shifty, he, above all others, threatens to ruin the Americans' start to World Cup Qualifying.
The X-factor may be Dexter Blackstock. The Nottingham Forest attacker tallied eight goals in 16 league starts this season for the Foresters. He only adds pace to an already-speedy front line that enjoys perhaps Antigua and Barbuda's only real advantage over the U.S.
If Klinsmann's team comes out of the tunnel and dominates from the opening whistle, you will hear less Antiguan names than you just read. But there is talent in this team, and if the U.S. lets it breathe, it could pay dearly.
The "road" to Brazil 2014, after all, is not paved.
HAVE YOUR SAY ... Tell me, on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the most concerned, how much are you worrying about the USA-A&G match, and why? Share your fears or lack thereof in the Facebook comments section below.
Jacob Klinger is a contributing writer to Soccer 365 where his column "Ready, Set, America" appears regularly. He also writes for No Short Corners and is currently a journalism student at Syracuse University. Jacob's love for the game goes back as far as he can remember, but was truly christened during the United States' cardiac qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. Between classes and columns, he still plays. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJacobK or email him at email@example.com.
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